Economy during the Mughals

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PEOPLE, TAXATION, AND TRADE IN MUGHAL INDIA: Shireen Moosvi; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110008. Rs. 695.

The reconstruction of economic past is a province of distinct specialism that involves deciphering old records and measuring magnitudes. In a collection of 17 essays written over two decades and revised for this edition, Shireen Moosvi, a leading economic historian, retrieves information from widely dispersed archives, shapes quantitative data, and takes a long-term view of how people lived and worked in the Mughal Empire.

Population size is a major indicator of economic trend, but estimating it for the pre-census period is a daunting task. With complex calculations based on statistics stored in the gazetteer of the Mughal Empire (Ain-i-Akbari), and a cue from Irfan Habib, Moosvi puts the urban population of Mughal India at 14.7 millions or 15 per cent of the total (98.3 millions). Cultivated area is calculated at 50 per cent of what it was in 1900 with the suggestion that the economy was not stagnant since both population and agriculture grew at a slow pace during the Mughal period.


Mughal Indians lived mostly in villages that were self-sufficient but obliged to feed towns and arteries of commerce. Peasants had to sell half of their produce to pay taxes (90 per cent of the state income) and much of this money reached the imperial ruling class (emperor and rank holding officials or mansabdars). The ruling class was town based and used the taxable resources to procure army, servants, hangers on and luxury products. Towns thrived as manufacturing and administrative centres with food grain, raw material and cash flow from the countryside. Delhi was bigger than Paris while Agra and Ahmedabad were greater than London. However, Moosvi treats the parasitic nature of Mughal towns as a factor inhibiting economic growth.

Much like our own, the Mughal bureaucracy generated paper work although much of it is lost beyond hope of recovery. Moosvi has translated two records concerning technical details of taxation and bearing the names of two finance ministers, Raja Todar Mal and Rasikdas. The fiscally prudent state faced the paradox of protecting the small peasantry (reza riaya) from the oppression of rural elites (zamindars and village headmen) who were revenue collectors for a share and junior partners in the business of exploitation.


Mughal India exported the choicest commodities (textiles, indigo and sugar) to the Middle East, Europe and East Asia for large quantities of foreign coins. In chapter two, Moosvi tells the story of India’s interaction with the world economy. Favourable trade balance and the re-minting of imported coins into Mughal money oiled the wheels of exchange. In foreign capital Europe had found the means to finance the Industrial Revolution when Spanish silver (brutally extracted from American mines) raised prices and mercantile profit. Mughal India was the biggest recipient of Spanish-American silver, but Moosvi considers its impact to be minimal. Business benefited from a modest inflation as well as lower interest rates but industrial structure of the economy remained unchanged. Capitalism passed us by in the absence of technological change and productive investment, and due to the control of resources by the political classes.

Women and work

The chapter “Work and Gender” is a pioneering effort that also uses pictorial evidence. India, like other parts of the world, assigned particular branches of labour to women. Ploughing was a man’s operation but women were always present in the fields sowing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting and carrying food cooked by them for their men. Husking, milling, fetching water and making milk products were particularly considered a woman’s job. In the paintings of child Krishna, women alone are shown making butter. Female labour was an important component also of the textile industry, building construction and domestic service. Moosvi suggests a certain amount of independence for the women of the lower orders in traditional India which “was sharply curtailed and seclusion and the veil enforced among both Hindus and Muslims in the case of higher-class women.” However, even these women managed properties and conducted business, being mostly educated and depicted in the paintings reading letters and books. Surviving marriage contracts (nikah nama) from the port city of Surat (chapter 16) reveal challenges faced by middle class Muslim women. The prescient conditions imposed upon potential bridegrooms were strict monogamy, restriction on domestic violence and redress on desertion. Violation of any of these conditions entitled the wife to automatic divorce or annulment of marriage.

Cicero once feared that he will turn into a child by turning his back on history. Moosvi’s book calls for attention at a time when India’s economic experience is being widely debated. She has kept the interest in economic history alive by making it possible for readers to hold scattered pieces of quality research in a single volume.



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